Our Soaring Love of Meat Is Bad News for the Planet

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The average amount of meat consumed per person globally has nearly doubled in the past 50 years, a trend with terrible consequences for environment, scientists warn.

Eating meat is a complicated thing. Some believe that humans require it, others argue the point – but one thing is clear: We are eating more and more animals and at the rate we are going, it is not sustainable.

Over the last 50 years, the amount of meat consumed per person has doubled, and data suggests that a general rise in wealth and population growth will lead to an increase in meat consumption of ~100 percent between 2005 and mid-century, according to a new study published in the journal Science. The authors say that this trend has major negative consequences for land and water use and environmental change.

In 1961, the average amount of meat consumed per person was around 50 pounds (23kg) – in 2014 that number was 95 pounds (43kg).

“What’s happening is a big concern and if meat consumption goes up further it’s going to be massively more so,” says study co-author Tim Key, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford. “On a broad level you can say that eating substantial amounts of meat is bad for the environment.”

“It is difficult to envisage how the world could supply a population of 10 billion or more people with the quantity of meat currently consumed in most high-income countries without substantial negative effects on the environment,” the authors note.

The study also explains that although meat is a concentrated source of nutrients for low-income families, it heightens the risks of chronic diseases like colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease.

“In high-income Western countries,” the authors write, “large prospective studies and meta-analyses generally show that total mortality rates are modestly higher in participants who have high intakes of red and processed meat.”

It’s bad for the planet and bad for the humans.

A few of the concerns

Meat produces more emissions per unit of energy compared to plant-based foods because energy is lost at each trophic (feeding and nutrition) level. The study notes:

“The most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide (N2O). Meat production results in the emissions of all three and is the single most important source of methane. Using the composite measure of CO2 equivalents, livestock production is responsible for ~15 percent of all anthropogenic emissions.”

Our deeply problematic overuse of antibiotics may be nowhere more apparent than in meat production, where they are rampantly used to prevent diseases associated with factory farming and to promote growth. Among other worries, the authors note that there is “serious concern that genes for antibiotic resistance may be selected in agricultural settings and then transferred to human pathogens.”

Water usage
From the study: “Agriculture uses more freshwater than any other human activity, and nearly a third of this is required for livestock.”

Threats to biodiversity
Land that is habitat to vast varieties of organisms is converted to agriculture, spelling doom for biodiversity. Meanwhile, nitrogen and phosphorus in animal manure contribute to nutrient loads in surface and groundwater, harming aquatic ecosystems and human health, the study explains. As well, livestock can affect biodiversity by sharing their diseases with wild animals.

What to do

Obviously the world is not going to give up eating meat overnight. Aside from the fact that, as previously mentioned, meat is a source of nutrition for many who don’t have the luxury of choosing something else, it is also deeply entwined in economics. The authors point out that livestock constitute 40 percent of agricultural output by price and meat production, and processing and retailing is a substantial economic sector in most countries.

And of course, there is always the politics. From the study:

The [meat industry] sector has considerable political influence and allocates large amounts of money to advertising and marketing. Lobbying from the meat industry was intensive during the formulation of U.S. Dietary Guidelines, and civil society organizations claimed that this influenced eventual recommendations.

But people can change their meat eating habits. And although animal welfare advocates might like to see a wholesale end to eating meat, just reducing one's consumption would at least be a start.


Science /CC BY 4.0

While eating meat in some countries, like China, is on the rise, in other countries it is plateauing or beginning to decline – the authors go so far as to say that in these places, “peak meat” may have passed. In order to encourage that trend elsewhere is a challenge that will require identifying the “complex social factors associated with meat eating and developing policies for effective interventions.”

The authors conclude that historically, change in dietary behaviors in response to interventions is slow – but social norms can and do change, a process that is helped “by the coordinated efforts of civil society, health organizations, and government.”

“However,” notes the study, “it is likely to require a good understanding of the impact of meat consumption on health and the environment and a license from society for a suite of interventions to stimulate change.”

To read the full study, visit Science.